We love an underdog, but not a loser. Of course, it can be very tough to tell the difference, since underdogs get "under" by being down with the losers. However, the payoff for spotting an underdog among the losers can be great, and this holds just as true in wine as in, say, horse racing. In wine, your best chance to get more than you pay for is to spot wines that look like losers (because of slow sales or regional obscurity) but taste like winners when given a chance. That description is a perfect fit for Chenin Blanc.
Although it is certainly true that Chenin Blanc suffers from slow sales in America, it is equally apparent that this grape can make wonderful wines that offer excellent value. It is remarkably versatile, with the capability to produce lovely dry wines as well as lusciously sweet ones that merit decades of cellaring. However, it is virtually unknown to average wine drinkers, and those who have indeed heard of it are likely to mistake it for a loser.
Ironically, this is because Chenin's very versatility often works against it. Since Chenin vines can be cultivated successfully in a wide range of conditions, and make passable wine even when forced to produce huge crops, they are usually pressed into ignoble service that conceals their potential nobility. This is overwhelmingly true in the United States, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. In rare instances, a producer in one of these countries will restrict yields and make something special, but in most cases the wines simply reinforce the impression that Chenin is a workhorse and not a thoroughbred.
The proof that this impression is mistaken is provided by the French, who have made glorious Chenins from low-yielding vineyards in the Loire Valley for nearly a thousand years. Sadly, however, the proof has gone virtually unnoticed in the U.S., largely because Chenins of the Loire travel not under the name of the grape but rather the villages and regions in which they are grown. Consequently, the glory that these wines would earn for the grape is split among bottlings that are labeled as Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, Jasnieres, Montlouis, Quarts de Chaume, Samur, Savennieres or Vouvray.
Of these, only Vouvray has made any notable headway in terms of name recognition among American consumers. Even this has been a mixed blessing, since most wines from Vouvray are at least lightly sweet, and current fashion here mandates that budding connoisseurs look down their noses at sweet wines. Thus, the lamentable situation in the U.S. is a sort of commercial double whammy. On one hand, relatively savvy consumers who are at least aware of Loire Chenins are often uninterested in the wines because some are sweet. On the other hand, drinkers of sweet White Zinfandel--who would probably love Loire Chenins--don't even know the wines exist unless they have degrees in French geography.
This is where you come in. Since Chenin Blanc is so little known and appreciated, it offers a great buy for those who don't care about wine fads and who enjoy wines ranging from dry to sweet. Dry Chenins work well with fish and poultry and make fine sipping wines, and sweeter versions are rarely syrupy or cloying, thanks to the balance lent by the grape's inherently strong acidity. Lightly sweet renditions are great aperitifs, and truly sweet bottlings are wonderful as after-dinner drinks or partners to fruit-based desserts.
Top performers from my recent tastings are listed in order of preference within categories, with Washington distributors and approximate prices indicated in parentheses:
DRY CHENIN BLANC
Chateau d'Epire Savennieres 1997 ($21, Wine Source); Eric Morgat Savennieres 1996 ($18, Vinifrance); Marc Bredif Vouvray 1997 ($15, Forman); Philippe Brisebarre Vouvray 1997 ($11, Vinifrance); Domaine Bourillon Dorleans Vouvray 1997 ($14, Bacchus); Chappellet Vineyard Napa Valley Chenin Blanc 1997 ($12.50, Country Vintner); Dry Creek Vineyard Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc 1997 ($9, DOPS).
LIGHTLY SWEET CHENIN BLANC
Domaine le Peu de la Moriette (Pichot) Vouvray 1997 ($19.97, Franklin); Monmousseau Vouvray Clos le Vigneau "Cuvee Amp" 1998 ($9, Kysela); Chateau Gaudrelle Vouvray 1997 ($14, Kysela); Guy Saget Vouvray 1997 ($9.50, Country Vintner).
SWEET CHENIN BLANC
Chateau Gaudrelle Vouvray Reserve Personnelle 1997 ($17, Kysela); Domaine de la Bergerie Coteaux du Layon "Le Clos de la Bergerie" 1996 ($14, Vinifrance); Domaine des Petits Quarts Bonnezeaux 1996 ($27, Wines Ltd.); Marc Bredif Vouvray Vin Molleux "Nectar" 1989 ($35, 375 ml, Forman).